Barcelona, Juventus look for home edges in Champions League semis
The Champions League semifinals kick off this week with three of the pre-tournament favorites still in contention. Real Madrid could become the first team since AC Milan in 1990 to go back-to-back and retain its trophy, but it must beat newly minted four-time reigning Serie A winner Juventus in order to get that chance. Its chief rival, Barcelona, welcomes former player and manager Pep Guardiola back to Camp Nou for a headlining clash against his Bayern Munich
Here is what to look out for in what could be a dramatic week in Europe's showpiece competition.
Tuesday, May 5, 2:45 p.m.
Juventus vs. Real Madrid
Two games against Atlético Madrid, two threats of the sack: Carlo Ancelotti survived them both. He knows the situation: if Real Madrid does not win either La Liga or the Champions League this season, and if Barcelona wins both, which would be even worse for him, then he will leave his job as Real Madrid coach (but probably not have a long wait for his next one).
"Some have killed me but I'm still alive," he joked last week with the Madrid press.
Ancelotti is a breath of fresh air compared to Madrid's Jose Mourinho era, in which it reached three straight Champions League semifinals but never went any further. Ancelotti has brought confidence and serenity to a locker dressing-room full of egos, and managed to ease individuals through slumps of form while others have stepped up.
Ronaldo scores one goal in five games? No problem, James Rodriguez and Javier Hernandez played fantastically. James's goal against Almeria last week a blaster from a headed clearance that flew in off the crossbar, similar to his breakout goal at the World Cup summed up his confidence: Marca called him Ancelotti's 3-in-1 player: "If the Italian needs him close to the area, no problem. If a stronger defense is needed, there he is, defending with all his heart. And he scores, too."
And on Saturday, Ronaldo returned to form with a poacher's hat trick at Sevilla, for Madrid's seventh straight win since losing the Clásico to Barcelona. Karim Benzema's absence with a knee sprain has been offset by the return of Gareth Bale, as Madrid will revert to a 4-4-2 formation.
Veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas said last week that winning the Champions League again was more important than winning the league. This competition is Madrid's lifeblood and the team is three games away from retaining its crown. That said, this team is nothing like the dominant side of Barcelona 2009 or Bayern 2013: perhaps that's what would make Ancelotti's achievement even greater.
Standing in his way is the side he coached in 1999, Juventus. Under Max Allegri, a coach that fans did not want to replace Antonio Conte just before the season began. Juventus has won Serie A again, and, to his credit, Allegri has gotten the best out of Carlos Tevez.
The Italian league's top scorer is "an extraordinary player, a generous player, a player of great character," the coach told The Guardian last month. "Sometimes you can go for 10 years without finding the right balance, but then you arrive at that moment when you are at the right stage in your maturation, with the right people around you. That is what Tevez has found, and it is allowing him to have one of the best years of his career."
The question that follows the Argentine striker is whether he will extend his contract beyond the one remaining year he has left or, as has been reported in Argentina, return to home club Boca Juniors while still at the peak of his powers.
For Juventus to have success at home, it will have to overcome the absence of Paul Pogba, who is out injured for the first leg. He might be back in time for the return leg in Madrid, but will Real have done the damage by then?
Wednesday, May 6, 2:45 p.m.
Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich's Bundesliga-winning party went a bit flat. Two days after clinching the title, it lost the German Cup semifinal to Borussia Dortmund, a defeat whose consequences have influenced this semifinal. Arjen Robben tore his calf muscle and is now out for the season: the Dutchman has been Bayern's best player this season and was instrumental in the 7-0 demolition of Barcelona in the same stage two years ago.
Robert Lewandowski, with nine goals in his last 11 games, fractured his cheekbone and his jaw and suffered a concussion, and is doubtful. If he does play, it will be in a specially constructed protective mask, which could affect his performance.
And if he doesn't play, what will coach Pep Guardiola come up with? The Spaniard was compared to Sherlock Holmes by journalist Marti Pernanau–who wrote the book on Guardiola–earlier in the season: as someone who innovates, not invents, while we, the Dr. Watsons in the crowd, say after the game: "I see the same things as you, but when I understand how you work it out, it all seems so ridiculously simple."
Will Javi Martinez play an important role Wednesday? Will Bastian Schweinsteiger be a surprise option as a false nine? And can Guardiola restore Xabi Alonso to his pre-Christmas form?
This time last year, Guardiola was dealing with the tragic death of his best friend and former assistant coach Tito Villanova. He risked everything in Bayern's second-leg approach against Real Madrid and paid for it with a 4-0 defeat. There is a different type of emotional pressure on the coach this week; his first return to Camp Nou as an opposing boss (he did watch Barcelona beat Manchester City in the round-of-16 second leg at Camp Nou back in March). And with the politics of Barcelona as it is, not everyone will be pleased to see him back (he did not get on well with disgraced ex-president Sandro Rosell and the current incumbent, Josep Bartomeu).
The race to make Lewandowski available as well as the concern over whether Franck Ribery, who last played seven weeks ago, will be ready has been spun in Spain: "Pep is nervous," declared the headline in Sport newspaper.
He may well be: Barcelona is well over the hump of the winter crisis and playing as well as it has all season.
The forward line of Messi-Suárez-Neymar is now living up to its billing as the best in the world and the style of play has moved on from the "long-ball" accusations that coach Luis Enrique had to shrug off a few months back. Over the weekend, an 8-0 win over Cordoba only enhanced that sense.
Barcelona is not shabby in defense, either, with 19 goals conceded in 35 league games (compared to Bayern's 15 in 31, or Chelsea's 27 in 35).
Guardiola is not the only one returning to Barcelona, as well. The Catalans released Thiago Alcantara in summer 2013, and in the last six weeks, since his return from a year out through injury, he has revitalized the Bayern midfield. One German commentator who has watched Bayern for 35 years called him "the most technically-gifted midfielder to have ever played for Bayern." Barcelona normally wins the midfield battle at home, and the forwards to do the rest. Thiago will give them its toughest challenge so far.